Real world, real rewards

“This is a class about the stuff they don’t teach you in school,” Professor Steven Kimbrough announced on the first day of OPIM 399, Business Application and Development.

Indeed, the operations and information management course contains a lot of things that most courses don’t have: backing from a major corporation, free computer software and thousands of dollars in prize money, waiting, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, for the students who create the best business software systems.

In an effort to teach and promote entrepreneurship, Kimbrough said, the brand-new course in information systems is “trying to get serious ideas with commercial value, build them to prototype stage and have them evaluated by a panel of potential investors.” The top three plans will receive cash prizes. Kimbrough said he believes the course is the only one of its kind in the country.

Unlike the Wharton Business Plan Competition, students will have to not only formulate a business idea but also get a demonstration model of it up and running. “Investment capital doesn’t just appear, you have to convince somebody,” said Kimbrough, who is teaching the course with Lecturer James Carpenter. “That’s what we’re trying to foster.”

The Unisys Corporation has donated a mainframe computer and software to the cause. And Communications Equity Associates (CEA), a venture-capital management firm run by two Penn alums, is donating $10,000 towards prize money for the best three projects.

“I thought it sounded like a great idea,” said Mike Eleey (ASC’68, WG’77), senior vice president of CEA and former associate vice provost for information systems and computing. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of creativity at the undergraduate level and thought it would be a good idea to support that. I liked the idea of a real-world competition.”

Eleey added that there is no expectation that his company will benefit from its participation in OPIM 399.

The 30-some students in the class, Kimbrough explained, will work on six or eight group projects. In addition to coming up with their own ideas, students may elect instead to work on ideas submitted from the Business Plan Competition, some of which require information systems for ideas for the transportation industry, the insurance industry and an on-line hip-hop department store.

What if students are so successful in this capstone project that they start a business during the school year? “We would encourage them to do that,” Kimbrough said. And unlike faculty members, undergraduates who come up with business ideas using University equipment own their own ideas.

“It’s an educational experiment and I really think it could be a big success,” Kimbrough said. “The real success of students is not whether they pass our exams but whether they succeed in life.”


Originally published on February 17, 2000